Photo by russelljsmith on Flickr.

Foes of DC’s zoning update have the script down to a science. If the Office of Planning (OP) doesn’t change its proposals to cater to their wishes, they shout that there hasn’t been enough public input. If OP does give in, claim that the plans are “a moving target” and call for more input anyway.

John Chelen, the Cleveland Park resident who set up a stacked committee of the Ward 3 Democrats to condemn the zoning update, sent a letter to Mayor Vincent Gray, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and others asking for “a moratorium on the zoning re-write process.”

Why? Because the proposals have been changing. I agree that’s frustrating. The problem is that the changes entail OP caving to opposition from the very same groups that are upset they’re changing. Chelen wrote:

During the last several months, several alternative sets of proposals have been released, often in a piece-meal fashion. Even now, proposed regulations are a ‘moving target,’ and additional changes to prior proposals have been promised. Such a helter-skelter manner of making such proposals imposes a hardship on our citizens.

With each new round of partial proposals by OP, our citizens must review these proposals and analyze their consequences, and try to find a way to submit their results to OP. OP has not devised a reasonable procedure to accept and respond to such submissions except through the limited meetings of the Zoning Task Force.

The public, especially notable citizens groups like the ones who have passed resolutions, do not have a way of engaging in this irregular process.

We would like you to directly intervene in OP’s plans and make sure that OP will release a completely revised set of zoning regulations, “black letter law” as it’s referred to in Federal practice, so that our citizens know exactly what’s being proposed and how all sections interrelate.

After such a complete set of regulations is published, OP should hold additional public meetings to obtain comments and respond. Publication of a complete set of regulations and an opportunity for public comment should occur prior to any further transmittals to the Zoning Commission. To do otherwise would short-circuit an already inadequate process.

There was a finished proposal. It was at the end of 2011. OP brought the proposal to its task force, a group of citizens that included many opponents, as it prepared to start a series of public meetings.

OP had to show this to the task force because some time earlier, opponents had claimed there wasn’t enough input, and asked for more task force meetings. So OP had to let the task force review it before releasing it to the public. However, opponents on the task force then responded by claiming that it was “secret” because OP hadn’t had the public meetings yet. It was a classic Catch-22.

By the time this second wave of zoning debates came about, Travis Parker, who had led the process from its start in 2007, had moved to Colorado, and another member of the team, Michael Giulioni, had left to go to grad school. Responsibility for the update fell to Deputy Director Jennifer Steingasser.

Facing fierce opposition, OP started backing off on some elements of the proposals. Planners limited corner stores to just actual corners, and accessory dwellings in garages to existing buildings that don’t need much renovation. They acceded to Georgetown’s desire to restrict accessory dwellings even more, and cut a rule to legalize “off-center” houses, where one side yard is bigger than required but the other is too small.

Various councilmembers, at least including Muriel Bowser and Phil Mendelson, also asked for more delays. At this year’s oversight hearings for the Office of Planning, Bowser asked OP to cut back some portions of the proposals, like corner stores, and OP has complied. (More on that soon.)

Unfortunately, that really did make the regulations a “moving target.” In the more than a year since, OP has repeatedly weakened the proposals. There will be far fewer places people can rent out garages than before. Corner stores in residential neighborhoods have become even more difficult to set up. Plus, there is a long litany of smaller changes. It has indeed been confusing to track what is actually still in them and what has gotten lost along the way.

Worse yet, OP has told neighborhoods concerned about parking minimums around transit that the parking minimums won’t even go away immediately after the code goes into effect. Instead, there will be a second “mapping” phase, where OP goes through some public process to determine where the transit corridors are even though it already has a map of them. That will give more chances for individual activists or councilmembers to push back against change in their neighborhoods and for OP — perhaps under a different mayor — to cave to some or many of these requests.

The Zoning Commission is the proper process

The most important point here is that there is a well-defined, thorough process for getting public input on a zoning proposal: the Zoning Commission’s hearings. Most proposals first come to the public’s attention when someone files a zoning petition with the commission.

They review it, “set it down” for hearings, hold often very extensive hearings, then have more meetings to deliberate. Under DC’s Home Rule Act, they are the body with ultimate power over zoning, so it makes sense for the main hearings to happen in front of the Zoning Commission, not just in front of planners or councilmembers.

Most likely, the commission will want to have a very long, thorough process for hearing from the public on the zoning update. It could take them months, or more. That is where the public input should happen.

The Zoning Commission can change the proposals. It’s fairly likely some members will try to “split the baby” and further attenuate any changes if there’s a lot of opposition.

The problem for opponents is that once the Zoning Commission goes through this process and one wave of changes, they’ll then pass something. Asking for another round of public hearings before the Zoning Commission even gets involved simply creates another opportunity for nothing to happen, or to further water down the proposals.

We should have been done by now

It’s instructive to look back at the public process page on the original zoning update site. It first talks about the process OP underwent in 2008 and 2009, where a series of public working groups reviewed chapters of the code, and made recommendations. OP then created a set of broad policy recommendations, and submitted them to the Zoning Commission. The commission held hearings and voted up or down on each recommendation. That concluded in 2009.

The original process document says:

Upon completion of all 20 hearings, OP will take the language preliminarily approved by the Zoning Commission and work with the Office of Zoning to codify it into a final cohesive document.  This document will then be subject to final review on this website and by the Zoning Commission prior to final approval.

The entire review and approval process is expected to take between two and three years.

There were originally only going to be 2 steps after those hearings: OP writes a final zoning code based on the ZC’s guidance, then submits it to the ZC, which holds final hearings. We should have been done around 2010 or 2011.

Rough timeline of the original process. Image by the author.

Instead, opponents asked for OP to involve the task force more, which they did. Councilmembers wanted an additional public information meeting in each ward, which OP held this past December and January. Fine. Now it’s long past time to get the text to the Zoning Commission.

Rough timeline of the actual and potential future process. Red bars are complete or almost complete, yellow are speculative. Image by the author.

OP had draft text last year. I read it and submitted hundreds of small suggestions. I also found some typos and errors. OP fixed the mistakes, incorporated a few suggestions, and disagreed with the rest. Having a “black letter” version of the code for people to react to does not mean that if there are any errors, you have to release another one, have more meetings, then another one, more meetings, and so forth.

OP had hundreds of public meetings, then zoning commission hearings, then task force meetings, then more public meetings, then more task force meetings, with many neighborhood meetings along the way. Enough is enough. We’re at least 2 years beyond the original timeframe, with a draft that’s now weaker than what the Zoning Commission already approved.

Mendelson has scheduled yet another oversight hearing, for July 2. We don’t need more hearings. At the last one, Mendelson even said he thought this issue should just go to the Zoning Commission already. Hopefully he really meant it and will still push for that to happen.

OP has been showing the final chapters to that task force. Now, they need to submit them to the commission, and the commission needs to schedule its setdown and hearings as soon as possible. There’s no reason for any more delay.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.